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Opera on the Avalon

In Review Canada Ours hdl 816
Polegato and Hickman, center, in John Estacio's Ours at Opera on the Avalon

WHILE LARGE COMPANIES STRUGGLE to produce new works that will be relevant to new audiences, Opera on the Avalon, founded only eight years ago in St John's, Newfoundland, has presented the premiere of Ours, an opera about one of the most important events in local history—the annihilation of the Newfoundland Regiment in minutes during the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel, at the beginning of the Somme Offensive, on July 1, 1916. Over two acts, composer John Estacio and playwright Robert Chafe proclaim the glory of this sacrifice.

Inquiries confirm that all Newfoundlanders know the story of the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel but it was still a surprise to hear a new work so cheerfully martial that it sounds as if it could have predate the Great War. While Ours showed corpses and damaged survivors, and it even had an explosion of anti-imperial anger, these complications were overwhelmed by anthems to spilled blood beat out in march time. “Wretched … but after today forgotten no more!” 

Nevertheless, the commission is a remarkable accomplishment for a regional company that produces one opera and one musical each year. Estacio has written an accessible, unpretentious score. If a line is to be noted, there will be a trumpet fanfare; and if there is a transition or a supernatural intrusion, there is also a harp glissando. Estacio reliably supports the singer instead of offering musical comment—except in one wry moment when a priest quits the church. It’s reminiscent of the frankest of silent film scores, or Mosfilm circa 1936.

Chafe’s libretto can be beautiful, as when he writes “there is no long list of the living,” and he isn't afraid of a joke. Baritone Brett Polegato sang and acted quite convincingly, though with occasional effort, as the tortured Roman Catholic priest Thomas Nangle (1889–1972) who is the center of the story. Will Nangle be able to go to the front? Can he minister to the men there? Will his faith survive the experience? Amidst so much actual life-and-death, Nangle’s personal situation does not raise the most thrilling dramatic questions; his problems are usually resolved in arguments with a whinging Archbishop over tea.

Act I is a time-travelling sprint where each scene transforms into the next; the ghoulish moans of soldiers become a celebratory cry as they line up to enlist. It happens too quickly for one emotional charge to land before the next blow does. Other than Nangle’s nighttime soliloquy after his arrival at the front, the memorable moments come in Act II, which gets an entr-acte and tells of Nangle’s grim work identifying and reburying the dead.

As their bodies are recovered, soldiers rise and sing in a focused scene that suggested an opera liberated from official history. It began in moving and mournful simplicity, and it grew into a stomping, marching chorus. “Send the boys from St. Bons” was remarkably led by local tenor Aaron Shephard, a standout for his sincerity and pleasantly bright tone (and authentic accent).

Soprano Lara Ciekiewicz was captivating and poignant as May, haunted by her reluctance to marry Edward, who will not return. Avalon’s co-founder and artistic director Cheryl Hickman appeared as Nangle’s wife, Thelma, and offered a surprisingly shapely voice.

After a few days reflection, it remained difficult to categorize the experience as an opera or a musical memorial. Ours had its premiere on Newfoundland’s Memorial Day, with the Governor General of Canada attending, and between wreath-laying and a lawn of 1,500 giant forget-me-nots, the performance was definitely part of bigger commemorations. As a way of telling Nangle’s story, Ours discards too much of the man in order to make a symbol out of him. The opera ends with a benediction of petals fluttering onto Nangle’s family in middle of a Rhodesian plain—something I suspect has never happened there. This could be a problem. Without revision, Ours might not shake its rosy cheeked, innocent grandiosity to have a life beyond the smiling island.

Which is not necessarily the point. There was palpable confidence in the hall that this story needed to be told this way, and that is a rare feeling at premieres. Newfoundland’s costly participation in the Great War set it on course for Canada, and the historical importance of Beaumont-Hamel is undeniable, as was the enthusiasm of the audience. It was their turn to recognize a story, and to recognize themselves, on the grand stage.  —Lev Bratishenko 

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